By Jason B. Hirschhorn
Through three games, the Green Bay Packers have shown little of the luster that made them one of the trendy Super Bowl picks in the preseason. Their all-world offense, the foundation of the team for most of the last 20 years, has disappeared at times during games against the Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets while failing to make any appearance against the Detroit Lions. Worse, Green Bay's shortcomings don't stem from simple injuries such as in past years. There's no Aaron Rodgers collarbone fracture or knee injuries to top receivers to explain away the offense's inconsistent play. Rather, multiple parties have let down the team, and Green Bay's quarterback isn't immune from blame.
Since taking over for Brett Favre in 2008, the hallmark of Aaron Rodgers' play has been ball placement and balanced pass distribution. Yet in 2014, Rodgers' magic touch has been noticeably absent. While his completion percentage sits at a respectable 62.7, he's missed on the crucial throws that separate him from the pack of very good quarterbacks. Against the Jets, Rodgers registered six underthrown incompletions, the most of his entire career. A week later in Detroit, he nearly matched it with five.
The most notable came on a 4th-and-5 play in the redzone. The Packers trailed the Lions 19-7, and needed a touchdown to keep their hopes alive. Rodgers identified the coverage he wanted -- linebacker DeAndre Levy over Jordy Nelson in the slot -- and checked with his top receiver. Running a fade, Nelson got behind Levy with no safety over the top to contain. In past years, Rodgers hits Nelson in stride for the score. Yet Rodgers badly underthrew, forcing Nelson to slow down on his route and make a diving attempt at the ball. The pass was incomplete, giving possession to Detroit and with it the game.
Inaccuracy hasn't been Rodgers' only foil in 2014. He's funneled a disproportionate amount of his passes to one receiver rather than spread the ball around. Part of this is the inexperience of the Packers' pass catchers. Talented, reliable players like Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jermichael Finley have all departed in free agency or retired over the past two seasons, leaving youngsters to fill the void. While receivers like Randall Cobb and Davante Adams possess the physical tools to become dangerous weapons on offense, their performance has been inconsistent. As a result, Rodgers has leaned heavily on Nelson, who to his credit has responded with an average of 117 yards per game. However, this tactic has a limited shelf life as defenses roll their coverages to bottle Nelson up. Instead of turning to his other receivers, Rodgers has too often forced throws or taken costly sacks, ending drives prematurely. Until he looks more regularly to his other receivers, Rodgers and the Packers offense will continue to sputter out.
The quarterback isn't the only component hindering the offense. Head coach Mike McCarthy has deviated from the creativity and offensive dexterity that have characterized his best units. In the past, McCarthy has used unbalanced sets and bunched receivers to confuse the defense and open up passing windows. Yet for much of 2014, McCarthy has stuck with 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) with a slot receiver on the weak side. This lack of diversity has allowed defenses to more easily take away Green Bay's top target, and shorten windows with the others.
McCarthy has also been resistant to giving his talented rookie receivers bigger roles in the offense. In limited snaps against the Seahawks, Davante Adams shook All-Pro corner Richard Sherman on double moves, though his quarterback never looked for him. Adams had some production a week later against the Jets, but was once again a forgotten man this past weekend in Detroit.
That's more than can be said for Jeff Janis. The Saginaw Valley State product has the size (6-foot-3, 217 lbs.) and the speed (4.42 40-yard dash) to create mismatches for the offense. In college and during the preseason, Janis burned defenders on drag routes turned into touchdowns. While a bout with shingles limited his practice time in the preseason, he's well versed enough in those underneath routes and receiver screens to contribute. Instead, he's spent the past three weeks on the deactivation list.
But as with most things in football, success is determined by the battle in the trenches. Despite Mike McCarthy's boasts that the offensive line could be the best of his Green Bay tenure, the unit has struggled to protect its quarterback and open up holes in the running game. Through three games, Rodgers has been sacked nine times, setting a pace for 48 on the year. Worse, running back Eddie Lacy's yards per carry sits at a pedestrian 3.1 despite averaging the fifth most yards after contact in the league. Offensive tackles David Bakhtiari, the hobbled Bryan Bulaga, and his sub Derek Sherrod have all struggled to create consistent push in the run game. Even the well-regarded guard tandem of Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang has been inconsistent in carving out space for the running backs. Without improved line play, no adjustments by Rodgers or McCarthy will make a significant impact.
The season is still young, and the worst part of the Packers' schedule is already behind them. Green Bay isn't a team incapable of fixing its issues. Rather, the Packers have begun three of their last five years with a 2-2 record and advanced to the postseason. Still, with multiple flaws threatening to derail their season, resurgence is far from guaranteed. In a division that's increasingly looking like one of the toughest in football, the margin for error is exceptionally small.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth and covers the NFL for SB Nation and the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. Follow him on Twitter at @jbhirschhorn.